The Business Development Bank of Canada is teaming up with the University of Toronto to help fund a startup accelerator designed to foster the next batch of great Canadian companies – another substantial move in the cross-country campaign to rebuild a domestic venture capital community.
BDC Capital, the development bank's investment and financing arm, is partnering with U of T's Rotman School of Management to support the Creative Destruction Lab, which offers an eight month program to bring entrepreneurs together and offer access to experts in technology oriented faculties. The goal: to commercialize promising technology.
The financial support mirrors other recent BDC initiatives, including backing Accel-RX, an accelerator for health sciences businesses. The bank's money flows from a $100-million fund the federal government asked it to set aside in 2013 in order to invest in and aid Canadian startups.
But BDC's efforts also stem from a recent overhaul of its strategy, said Dominique Bélanger, vice-president of investments and partnerships. Historically Canadian venture capital backers tried to invest the way their U.S. peers did, but BDC believes there was a need to be different.
"We weren't going about venture capital the right way in Canada," he said. "In the '90s, what Canada did was copy and paste Silicon Valley."
BDC started rethinking the way it doles out cash seven years ago, and the bank implemented a new strategy in 2010. The new goal, broadly speaking, is to target Canadian strengths, and to use different regions to specialize in their respective industries. The Maritimes can become a powerhouse for ocean technology; Calgary can be a hub for agricultural technology.
BDC's rethink coincides with a recent rebound in venture capital investments, with new money flowing from backers such as OMERS Ventures, an arm of the large pension fund. Mr. Bélanger is pleased with the growing support, but said there are few firms that are truly national players, so the BDC feels the need to oversee a coast-to-coast strategy.
Now that the plan is in effect, BDC is starting to branch into new sectors. Initially it focused on 'IT light,' such as social media, but it is now delving into 'hard IT,' including hardware, as well as clean technology and health care.
The bank's decision to support accelerators as it expands stems from a belief that entrepreneurs are a special breed. "You can't teach entrepreneurship in a classroom," Mr. Bélanger said. "You've got to find people who have the entrepreneurial DNA… [and] surround them with the experience and the know-how." Canadians interested in joining BDC's joint program at U of T have until August 28 to apply for the initiative's next cohort.
BDC is upfront about the risks to its strategy. Venture capital moves in 10-year cycles, Mr. Bélanger said, and the latest cycle isn't even halfway finished, making it hard to assess any results. "We're in year four of a 10-year game," he said.